Charles Babbage's Inventions Revolutionized Computing and the World

Charles Babbage created the first mechanical computer and otherwise changed the world of mathematics forever.

Charles Babbage's Inventions Revolutionized Computing and the World
Babbages Analytical Engine. Joe D/Wikimedia

Charles Babbage is in all practical senses the person you need to thank for being able to read this article right now. He is credited as the inventor of the digital programmable computer and his work in mathematics changed the field forever.

Babbage was a mathematician, inventor and mechanical engineer who spent his life devoted to those subjects. That said, he was a polymath whose inventions and discoveries range widely throughout the STEM fields.

To understand the impact this great inventor had on our lives, let's take a look at what he accomplished.

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Difference Engine

This famed mathematician was quite adept at mathematical tables. In fact, these devices were used commonly in the early 1800s when Babbage lived for navigation, science, and engineering. Since no mechanical calculators existed at the time, they were always calculated by hand through long drawn out means. 

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Given Charles' background in mechanical engineering, he tried his hand at creating a device that would solve these tables automatically and accurately, thus saving engineers time and money.

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In 1819, Babbage began building a small model of the mechanical calculator that he had devised. Taking 3 years to complete it, in 1822 he had the finished model, now referred to as Difference Engine 0. This machine was able to calculate and print tables (the mathematical kind) all through the user input of cranking a handle. 

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After this first proof of concept, the British government expressed interest in the machine and gave Babbage 1700 pounds to build a full-scale model. This full model was supposed to be able to calculate polynomial functions. 

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Like most experimental engineering projects, efforts by Babbage to build the device spanned several years and ended up costing 17 thousand pounds at the time. 

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Charles Babbage's Inventions Revolutionized Computing and the World
A Part of the Difference Engine. Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia

By 1832, a small working portion of the engine had been built, but the project fell out of the good graces of the government's funding. Unfortunately just too many high-quality precision manufactured pieces were needed to make it work. Specifically, the design required 25,000 working parts and the final difference engine would've weighed 13 metric tons scaling it at over 2.4 meters tall.

It should be noted that Babbage's design for the difference engine would've worked, or rather does work, it was just the funding and the practicality of such a large devise that kept it from coming into fruition. There's a working model of the difference engine machine at the Science Museum in London

Analytical Engine

After not completing the original difference engine, Babbage worked to develop a new design for Difference Engine Number 2. This would go on to be known as his analytical engine.

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This design was more akin to a general-purpose computer that could do arithmetic logic, have conditional formulas and loops, as well as a form of mechanical memory. All of the programming for this mechanical computer was designed to be done using punch cards, a device that anyone involved in early digital computing in the 1970s and 1980s will remember.

Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician at the time, worked on developing instructions for Babbage's machine, completing the project soon after. Unfortunately, the Analytical machine was never built, but since Ada did complete the instructions, shes regarded by many as the first computer programmer.

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Not only was the analytical engine not ever built by Babbage, but the design was practically forgotten about for the next hundred years until the engineer's notebooks were discovered in 1937. In 1991, British scientists were able to build the analytical engine to Babbage's initial specifications. They also finished his accompanying printer design for the engine in the year 2000.

Babbage's designs and pseudo working prototypes were considered the first mechanical computers to be ever invented. If only he had more funding at the time – the world of computing might be much more advanced today.

While the machines he designed were mechanical and bulky, the basic concept is similar to the modern computer. It is for this reason why he is often looked at as one of the pioneers of computers.

Railroad Inventions

Babbage, being a polymath, didn't just concern himself with mechanical computers. He also was heavily involved in the railroad industry through a close friendship with engineer Marc Brunel. 

In 1838, Babbage actually invented a device that sits on the front of rail engines called the pilot, or more colloquially the cow-catcher. This was a metal frame that fit the front of trains to clear the tracks of obstacles. 

Charles Babbage's Inventions Revolutionized Computing and the World
Babbage's Pilot Invention. Source: TParis/Wikimedia

Babbage also is credited as having invented the dynamometer car. This device was a large rail car that was able to measure the power of a train, like speed, tractive force, top speed, etc.

Unrelated to Babbage's work in the railroad industry but not warranting its own section, he also invented the ophthalmoscope, an optical device used to allow optometrists to see into the back of eyes.

Other Interests and Discoveries

As you can likely gather so far, Charles Babbage's interests and realms of study extended into various different subjects and even industries. Two other unique interests of the famed Inventor of note are cryptography and his near-obsessive distaste for "public nuisances".

Cryptography

In 1845, Babbage solved a cipher challenge given to him by his nephew. In the process of doing so, he was actually able to correlate all ciphers to something known as a Vigenère table. These tables are essentially rows of the English alphabet written own, each shifting by one letter as you move downward. Babbage realized that ciphers could be correlated to these tables using a keyword of sorts using basic math.

His knowledge of ciphers came in handy for the military in the 1850s during the Crimean War. Babbage was able to break Vigenère's autokey cipher, though this was kept a military secret and an infantry officer was given public credit for solving the cipher years later. 

Public Nuisances

In the 1800s, public nuisances were people who were just as it sounds, a nuisance to the public. From drunks to rowdy teenagers. Babbage was heavily involved in very public campaigns against these figures, using math, of course. 

In 1857 he published a paper titled "Table of the Relative Frequency of the Causes of Breakage of Plate Glass Windows", which outlined just what percentage of broken windows were caused by these nuisances.

Babbage also disliked commoners, keeping close tally of bad actions that were taken by the general public on the street. He would actively try to stop people from playing music on the street.

Notable, Babbage was also a large proponent of the anti-hoop-rolling campaigns of the 1860s. He blamed these young kids for causing horses to stumble and throw their rider off. His staunch support even led him to a debate in the commons in 1864.

As you can tell, Babbage was not only a mathematical genius, but he was fun at parties too.

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